Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  120. You may not be able to find £100 million?
  (Sir Michael Jay) We may not be able to do so. As I say, I think it is a stretching target. We are going to have a really good stab at it but I cannot promise you that if I am back before you in two years' time I will be saying we have achieved it but we are going to have a go. We will not have a go if it means selling properties which are a real asset to the taxpayer overseas.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  121. I would like to pick up on one point, Sir Michael. I was astounded when you said that by taking two rooms in the French Embassy one week a month you could have effective influence in a Francophone country like Niger, working out of the French Embassy, which I am sure will be exceptionally helpful to you. Really, what are you going to pick up from that? If we should be represented in that country, surely we should have a small, independent, free-standing embassy or, at the very least, a premises which is ours to which a diplomat can go on a rather more frequent basis.
  (Sir Michael Jay) It is a question of resources. We have to find the most effective way within limited resources to establish a worldwide network. We have to look at imaginative ways of doing this.

  122. That is testing imagination more than somewhat. If the thing is worth doing, surely it is worth doing properly? It seems to me that that is an absurd situation.
  (Sir Michael Jay) I do not agree. I think it is an imaginative proposal and a good example of working closely with the French in Africa, which is something which we want to do. It will enable us, by having somebody there one week in every month, to maintain contact with the authorities in the sense that we cannot now. I think it is worth doing.

  123. The French will do a wonderful job for us.
  (Sir Michael Jay) No, they will have their own objectives and we will have ours. I do think that sharing is important and to try to work more closely with our European counterparts in diplomatic effort overseas. I do think this is an imaginative way of doing that.


  124. May I ask you three quick questions on the financial side before we come on to September 11th and the implications of that. First of all, you refer to the changes in the number of your department's objectives. Personally, I was sorry to see the removal of objective 9, which is to improve the operational effectiveness of the FCO. I thought there were some very interesting targets that you were set in the spending review of 1998. I understand that much of those targets is now in the form of your service delivery agreement, which is available on the FCO website and we have brought it down. The question I would like to put is this: for future annual reports, would it not be a good idea to put your service delivery agreement and target under that in the annual report?
  (Sir Michael Jay) Yes, I think it would. I may not be quite answering the question. If we are talking about this one, this was only agreed a few days ago.

  125. But you have produced an analysis for us of what was in the early Spending Review and I refer to objective 9. It says that targets for the management of the FCO for the 2000 Annual Review period are included in the FCO service delivery agreement. That service delivery agreement is up on your website. It seems to me to be a very important component of your annual report. I am asking whether for future annual reports the service delivery agreement and the targets under that should not be included in the annual report?
  (Sir Michael Jay) They should be and they will be.

  126. The next question I wanted to put to you: you produce, in your answer to our 14 supplementary questions, the list of the posts overseas which were your top 20 spenders. I was very surprised by the degree of variation between the various years as to which posts appeared in the top 20. We have noted, for example, that as far as the 2001-02 financial year is concerned, Lima and Columbo appear in the top 20 spending posts. I would be grateful if you could explain to the Committee why there is such a degree of velocity as to which are the top 20 spenders because I, for one, am somewhat mystified by that.
  (Mr Gass) We are now referring to specific posts and the sorts of thing which will change substantially the amount we spend on the post every year will include the amount of programme spending that we deliver in that country. For example, if we have a major drugs training programme in Colombo, which may be the reason why our spending increased in one particular year, that will score in one year and it may not help score in the next year if we have then completed that programme. That is one of the elements which will mean there is quite a sharp difference frpm year to year in some posts.

  127. Can you shed any light on why Lima, for example, has come up in the top 20?
  (Mr Gass) I cannot immediately, Mr Chairman.
  (Sir Michael Jay) We will send you a note about that.

  128. The last question I wanted to put to you is: Sir Michael, as you know, the Committee over quite a considerable period, including in the last Parliament, has been encouraging your department not to hide its light under a bushel as far as the value which the taxpayer gets for his money which he is expending on your department. We have been pressing you to set out, as best you can, what are the cost-benefit relationships for the expenditure going through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I simply would like to register that I, and I am sure other members of the Committee, are very pleased that in various points in the report you have set out, under the various chapter heads, illustrations of the various cost benefit results that you are achieving. I hope you would confirm to the Committee that you will continue to pay close attention to this and be similarly ready to be setting out your stall in terms of what you are achieving for the taxpayer.
  (Sir Michael Jay) The answer to those questions is "yes", Mr Chairman. May I say that we have found it extremely helpful to have been asked by you to do this because it has focussed our attention more on the cost-benefit analysis activities. I think we do need to continue to look at ways in which we can measure our output and demonstrate the value which we do add. We have found that in some cases this was easier than others. In cases like, for example, the consular activities and new passports system and so on, there was a fairly clear and I think demonstrable cost-benefit analysis. For some others, it was a little bit more experimental in tyring to draw the costs and benefits, but we will continue to do that. I am glad that has helped the Committee. We will certainly continue with that for next year.

  129. Can you also pay attention to the other side of that coin, which I think the Committee and therefore the wider public should be aware of, namely, that if the Department feels that tasks are being imposed on it which are resulting in substantial expenditure, for which only very limited benefit is being derived, I hope you would feel it is appropriate to draw that to the attention of the Committee in future annual reports.
  (Sir Michael Jay) Thank you. If I may, on that point, going back to a point we were making earlier on, one of the purposes of our discussion with other government department here in London is to ensure that we have a proper sense of their priorities and the things which are really important for them, so that our posts can concentrate on the things which are our priorities and the priorities of other government departments, and that we encourage other government departments too to prioritise and only ask our posts to do the things which really do have value added.

  Chairman: I want now to turn to the impact on your Department's activities since 11 September.

Sir Patrick Cormack

  130. Sir Michael, would you like to say a little to the Committee about how those dreadful events have affected your day-to-day operations and your resource requirements and even perhaps your longer-term aims?
  (Sir Michael Jay) When we look back, there was an immediate response on our operations, both at home and abroad. At home, we had to set up consular emergency units straight away, and we did the same in New York. I think that showed that we were able to operate swiftly and effectively, faced with a completely unpredictable event. I think our response there was positive. Developing that theme a little bit, the one lesson we have learnt is that our immediate response was very positive; we were also one of the first countries to set up an embassy in Kabul. Looking back on it, we would like to have been able to set that up a little bit more quickly and a bit more fully than we did. One of the lesson there again goes back to the flexibility of the diplomatic response. Can we find ways in which we can have almost a rapid-reaction embassy, rather as the Department for International Development respond very quickly to disasters abroad? Can we work out ways in which we have the communications, the people and the linguists ready at very short notice to deploy a diplomatic presence overseas when faced with a situation like Afghanistan? We are working on that at the moment.

  131. Are you reasonably happy with the progress you are making?
  (Sir Michael Jay) We are happy with the progress we are making but we are not there yet.

  132. I would just say, in parentheses, that the Committee did go to New York and we were very impressed by what Sir Thomas Harris and his colleagues have done there. We have put that on record. So you are not there yet as far as rapid reaction is concerned. When will you be there?
  (Sir Michael Jay) I will ask Mr Collecott, who is leading the team that is working on that, to say where we have reached. It is an important part of our activities.
  (Mr Collecott) It is a very important part. There are various more imaginative ways in which we can look at providing the kit and the physical presence that we need. One of the constraints we found in Kabul was actually the question of premises. Our premises were rather small; they had deteriorated over the time. Frankly, we had colleagues of ours living and working in extremely cramped circumstances with very serious security risks surrounding them for much longer than we would have liked. Obviously the physical nature of the compound there imposed restraints on the degree, the timing and the speed with which we could put in place the communications and other equipment that we would want to operate normally. As I say, we are actively looking at possibilities such as: is it possible for us in a situation like that to put on the ground pretty rapidly the equivalent of 20 ft. containers which are fitted out as offices and which would provide some secure, rather quick alternative to the long process of finding new buildings and making them secure. Clearly, on the personnel side, we are also - and this is where some of the new systems which we are going to be introducing next year help dramatically - refining our ability to pinpoint those people who have the right skills, background and language and to be able to move them very rapidly. We did it post 11 September, but I think we would all agree that was somewhat more ad hoc than we would wish.

  133. May I ask a couple of matters on that? First of all, do you have a sufficiently flexible contingency fund to develop these things? Secondly, do you have the equivalent of a reserve list so that you can call upon perhaps recently retired diplomats to come and help out in these situations if they have a special expertise?
  (Mr Collecott) We have both of those in part, but I think both of those we can develop a little bit more. One of the challenges which we had immediately post 11 September, for this and other reasons, was actually to re-prioritise the resources we have because we did not have an immediate pot to which we could go to fund this new activity. We had to take rather hard decisions on what was going to be lower priority and not be done. In the future, we are intending to have some kind of unallocated provision, which should be used for real emergencies rather than just being drawn down willy-nilly. Secondly, yes, we do have lists through an organisation which we fund within the Foreign Office of retired people who are willing to come back. We can draw on them. We have tended to draw on their expertise to fill requirements in London, occasionally to send people abroad, but that is one of the resources on which we can draw to be more flexible in our department.

  134. Could you develop this? You will build up the figures.
  (Sir Michael Jay) Yes.

  135. I do not want to be alarmist, but something like 11 September could happen again. If it did, would you be better prepared, in the light of 11 September, to cope with it?
  (Sir Michael Jay) I think we would, yes, in two ways: firstly, I think we would be better able to react quickly overseas in strengthening our operations where we need to; we have also learnt lessons from the operations of the emergency unit back in London on how it can best be staffed, how it can best operate. Indeed, we put some of those lessons into practice when we opened the emergency unit again during the time of recent high tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, which suggested that we had learnt some of those lessons. I would not want for a moment to be complacent about this because these matters put any organisation under huge strain, but I think we will be better able than we were before.

  136. What about the Counter-Terrorism Committee operating out of the UN: do you think that has adequate resources? How do you assess the success of the so-called Islamic Media Unit?
  (Sir Michael Jay) On the first point, if I may say so, I think that Sir Jeremy Greenstock has done an extremely good job as Chairman of that. It is a tribute to him and his diplomacy that he was chosen to do that job. That Committee's work is acting as a very good discipline on Member States around the world and I am sure they do come up with their anti-terrorism or counter-terrorism plan. On the second point, I think one of the other main lessons that we have learnt from 11 September is that the nature of diplomacy is less state-to-state or government-to-government and as much public opinion-to-public opinion. What the Islamic Media Unit has shown is that it is possible to have an effect on public opinion overseas and that that is crucially important. I think this will become a lasting part of our machinery. We realised quite early on that we needed to get people speaking fluent Arabic and in the press in the Muslim and Arab world just to put across our point of view.

  137. Have you enough Arabists?
  (Sir Michael Jay) We have not yet had difficulty in finding people either from within the Service or from outside to meet the demands that we are putting on them.

  138. Are you specifically seeking to recruit from the universities?
  (Sir Michael Jay) The Islamic Unit is establishing contacts with the key people in universities so that we have a pool of people to draw on. It will not necessarily be a question of recruiting them to the Foreign Office but making the best use of the resources that are there to promote British interests.

  139. Again, do you have enough resources to develop this?
  (Sir Michael Jay) I hope so. It is a very high priority. Going back to the earlier question about efficiency savings and the need to be looking for the lower priorities to release funds for the higher priorities, I think that this is, without any question at all, one of the higher priorities and will remain so.

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